AMERICAN THEATRE

Theatre and the Last Pandemic

SO FAR 2020 HAS NOT TURNED OUT TO BE THE theatre year anyone anticipated. By mid-March theatres across the United States had closed their doors, canceled the remainder of their seasons, and in most cases announced layoffs and furloughs, all thanks to mandates for social distancing to stem the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic. Theatre historians writing about the age of the novel coronavirus will recall seasons that never were, shows that never opened, and productions that closed mid-run.

This isn’t the first time U.S. theatres have shuttered in response to catastrophe, of course. In New York City after 9/11, theatres of all sizes struggled to recover, though most above 14th Street reopened within days of the attacks. To find a national event to equal COVID-19’s impact, both on theatre and society at large, you need to look back more than a century, to 1918, to that year’s global flu pandemic.

In the first few months of that year, influenza seemed to be having an impact only on World War I-era soldiers, and the nation accordingly saw it as a matter for the War Department. But as U.S. soldiers moved around the country, and then the world, so did the disease. Despite its contemporary name, the Spanish flu, historians and

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